Varadkar’s support for Galway Ring Road is layered with myths that need busting

Comment & Analysis: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, answering Leaders’ Questions in the Dail this week reaffirmed his support for the Galway City Ring Road. In the process of doing so, he bundled all of the myths about the project into a few lines which fits into one paragraph:

“I know that some people will argue the Galway ring road is contrary to our climate action plan. I do not believe that is the case. I believe the construction of the Galway ring road will free up the city and road space within the city for pedestrians and cyclists, making it more attractive to residents, tourists and investors. I also take the view that by the time it is built, and we know it will take many years to build, most of the electricity we produce in this country will be from renewables and many more people will be using electric cars and other electric vehicles.”

— Leo Varadkar

This all might sound very reasonable until you realise that it is totally contradicted by the planning application that Galway County Council and Galway City Council submitted to An Bord Pleanála. Let’s take the Taoiseach’s points one by one…

1. The Galway City Ring Road project is not contrary to the Climate Action Plan

FALSE: The Climate Action Plan requires a reduction in transport emissions of 50% by 2030. The planning application documents state that the Ring Road will have a “significant negative impact on carbon emissions and climate”.

2. The Ring Road will free up space in the city centre for pedestrians and cyclists

FALSE: The ring road will result in increased traffic on most of the arterial routes into the city and increased traffic on many of the quietest roads in the city as indicated by the modelling results submitted as part of the planning application – see map below. 

A map of a city

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3. By the time the road is built most of the electricity we produce will be from renewables.

UNLIKELY: The national target for 2030 is to have 80% of our electricity from renewable sources. We are currently at around 39% and most experts agree that it is highly unlikely that we will meet the 80% target at current trajectories. This means that even if we could achieve a switch to electric vehicles, the electricity they would be using would be generated primarily by fossil fuels.

The unlikelihood of Ireland reacting its 2030 target was covered in The Irish Times on 26 October, and again last week when the paper covered a KPMG study, commissioned by Wind Energy Ireland, which found that 95% of industry experts believe that issues relating to planning, electricity connections and “a lack of joined-up thinking in policy development” will prevent the country reaching the target.

4. Many more people will be driving electric cars.

LIKELY BUT: From a very low base: Currently only about 3% of cars on the road are electric vehicles, including hybrid electric vehicles that use fossil fuels. The national target is to sell 1 million electric vehicles by 2030. Most experts agree that it is very unlikely that this will be achieved, and, even if it was, it would still represent only about one-third of all vehicles in Ireland.

We will still be selling fossil fuel cars up to 2030 and possibly to 2035 if we are bound by EU rules. The lifespan of cars is growing all the time so it is likely that we will still have fossil fuel cars on our road up to 2050. In that context, building new roads will mean an increase in carbon emissions for decades to come.

Mr Varadkar also noted the environmental impact of road construction and noted how building technology has changed to lessen this impact. The reality is that the concrete required to build the proposed ring road will contain millions of kilograms of embodied carbon.

Deputy Noel Grealish, in his initial question to the Taoiseach on Wednesday spoke about the ring road as a solution to Galway’s traffic problems. Unfortunately, it is clear to anyone who has read the application documents in detail that the ring road will not solve the chronic congestion in the city and, in fact, is likely to make it worse for people trying to access the city.

What will help to solve it is the introduction of traffic demand management measures as recommended by the Five Cities Demand Management Study in 2021 and a more ambitious plan to deliver sustainable transport and active travel solutions in the city, which we will hopefully see in the new draft Galway Metropolitan Area Transport Strategy due to be published this month.

And the good news is that this can be achieved for an awful lot less than the close to €1 billion price tag that is now anticipated for the ring road, and without the destruction of people’s homes, wildlife habitats and historic landscapes.

Ciarán Ferrie is an architect and Galwegian living in Dublin, he is a co-founder of I Bike Dublin.

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